Together Again

Charles would never be able to look his sister in the eyes again. He stared at the slumped form in the cage and whistled low. It can’t be. But it was. Dead.

Once he had cleared out a nest of mice from the garage, so the irony of failing as a hamster caretaker struck everything but the funny bone.

Three years ago, Robin had been diagnosed with cancer, one that might prove fatal or might go into remission forever. A chancy thing that Charles could not understand even after researching it online till his eyes ached.

This last hospital stay meant that someone had to take care of Henny.

He had said he would.

And he had meant it.

But life got in the way, and he forgot.

Now Henny lay like a petrified rock before an empty feed bowl. Dried crust rings adorned the empty water dish.

Mom’s voice raced up the stairs. “Charles?”

He had to answer. He was in Robin’s room. Mom wouldn’t ask about Henny. Never cross her mind. “Yeah?”

“Dad and I are going now. The hospital said that one of us could pop in for a visit if we get there in the hour.”

No explanation needed. He knew all the restrictions and why he was not on the short list of visitors. “Fine.”

“Bye, honey. Keep an eye on the chicken in the crockpot.”

The front door shut with all the force of a late winter wind behind it.

Charles sighed. He opened the cage and did the needful. Despite the frozen ground, he’d give his sister’s pet a decent burial. It was the least he could do.

~~~

Online classes set Charles’ nerves on edge. There were so many more interesting things he could be doing with his time. He googled hamsters and discovered that there were a few within his price range. No one would know…except Robin, of course. She had a mama-bear’s sensitivity. One whisker out of place, and her eyebrows would rise sky high.

He sighed and drummed his fingers on his desk. How on earth could he replace hamster-love? Clearly, with her frequent hospital visits, another pet wasn’t a good option. A game? How about a craft they could do together? She liked nature walks—he could take her to the park every week. Or a boyfriend? He could set her up with— Charles shook his head. She was only twelve, for heaven’s sake. What am I thinking?

His phone buzzed, and his stomach tightened. Either his teacher or his mom. Nether a welcome distraction. He checked his text messages.

Hey, Sweetie! Great news. They’re letting us take her home today. Just got a few things to finish up, and we’ll all be together again🙂

Surprise!!!!!

Get the chicken ready, and Dad will pick up some dessert on the way to celebrate.

Hearts and smiles,

~Mom

If a national emergency had been declared, and he was being sent to the front lines, Charles’ heart could not have pounded any harder.

~~~

From the sound of boots stomping into the living room, hearty laughter, and voices chattering way too loud, Charles knew something was off. He had cleaned up the remains of Henny’s house; her empty cage stood in the corner of his closet, out of sight. He hoped out of mind.

He had changed his dirty shirt and finished his biology assignment—one focused on rodents—only adding to life’s cruel fate.

He sucked in a deep breath and marched down stairs.

Mom was bustling every direction, humming some ridiculous tune in the kitchen, and Dad was helping Robin get settled on the couch. Lots of pillows and extra blankets.

Oh, God.

Twelve? She looked eighty. Her sunken eyes peered at him as a smile quivered on her lips. Brave but doomed. He knew it. She knew it. And now she knew that he knew it.

Henny’s slumped form flashed before his eyes, and a lump rose to his throat. He forced it down, strode to the couch, and plunked down beside her. In his fifteen-years on earth, it was the bravest thing he had ever done.

He nudged her shoulder.

She nudged him back. Her smile widening and real this time.

“So, you’ve come back to plague me with song requests, I suppose? Twenty new tunes you want uploaded?”

“Only seven—but I found a game we can play. You just have to set it up.”

Huge, long-suffering sigh. He nudged her again.

Mom called from the kitchen, “Dinner’s ready!” with all the practice of a spring lark. All hell could be breaking loose, but as long as she had dinner ready, cheerfulness reigned supreme.

Dad sprang into action, his arm ready, his hovering presence all that Robin needed to get to the kitchen table.

Eating wasn’t difficult. It was impossible. But Charles managed it anyway.

A Netflix movie—a Jane Austin romance that made Charles and his dad exchange eye-rolls every other scene—and evening prayers completed the night.

Sweating bullets every time Robin offered an inquisitive glance his direction, Charles prayed that she’d forget about Henny until tomorrow.

No such luck.

Ascending the steps, she clutched her dad’s hand and hit Charles square between the eyes. “How’s Henny been? I feel bad, leaving her so long. But I’m sure you’ve taken good care. She’s so silly.”

What does silly have to do with it? She wasn’t a silly hamster. She was a rodent. Nothing to shed tears over. His vision blurred. “Can you wait till tomorrow? I’m really tired tonight.”

She nodded. “Me too.” She slipped off to bed.

Laying in the dark, facing the monsters chasing him down the corridors of his imagination, Charles knew his days were numbered. He couldn’t live through this. He didn’t want to.

~~~

After a night of dreams skewered by nonsense nightmares, Charles swallowed each bite of cereal in the same way that a camel manages with cactus leaves. Ignore the prickles and force it on down.

Dad, his protective armor on, patted Charles’ back as he strode into the kitchen. “You doing okay?”

There was no good answer, so Charles simply shrugged.

The phone buzzed. A loud conversation upstairs, Mom’s laughter, and then Mom skittering down stairs with the phone held out. “Jason has everything set, but he wants us to there to make sure it’s what we want. Then he’ll bring it over right after he gets it loaded.”

Apparently, the message made sense to Dad. He nodded, grabbed his coat, and snatched his keys.

Mom leaned in to Charles. “She’s still sleeping. We won’t be gone long. If she wakes up, get her something to eat so she doesn’t try to take the stairs, okay? We’re getting the bed the doctor recommended, so she’ll be more comfortable.”

After an affirming nod, they were out the door.

Silence pervaded the house for the next fifteen minutes. Then the shuffling steps of a very old or very sick person padded overhead.

Charles trotted upstairs and rushed to his sister’s room. But she wasn’t there. He glanced at the bathroom. Empty. His heart thudded as he approached his room. There she stood, the closet door open, Henny’s cage pulled out, empty and forlorn.

“I’m sorry. It was all my fault—”

Surprisingly strong, Robin’s voice warbled across the room to the doorway. “She was three years old—that’s ancient for a hamster.”

But you’re only twelve. Tears stung Charles’ eyes.

She turned and faced him. “I was thinking…maybe you could walk outside and take pictures, text ‘em, then call me, and describe stuff. Then—well—I won’t miss spring completely.”

Charles nodded.

~~~

All through February and deep into March, he sent pictures of Snowdrops, Crocus, maple buds, early, eager bees, and the first Robin to come bob-bobbing-along. She responded with hearts, googly-eyed smiling faces, and other ridiculous emojis that made him laugh out loud.

~~~

After the last thaw in mid-April when the temperatures finally rose again, he tread across the slushy grass, box under his arm and a spade in hand. He stopped before the fresh mound. It might take years for grass to grow over the site. He clasped the stained container and, with the aid of his spade, made a small hole at the foot of the grave. He placed the box front and center, then covered it with all the care of an operating doctor finishing a procedure. He patted the earth and leaned on the spade handle.

“Together again, best I can arrange it. Dumb mistake to forget Henny…but sometimes, it’s hard to see stuff.”

A red-breasted Robin hopped close and cocked its head.

Charles knelt on the muddy ground and lifted his hand. They stared at each other for a long moment.

Then it fluttered its wings and flew away.

Books by A. K. Frailey

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter https://amzn.to/3iGqGlQ

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In Production)

OldEarth Melchior Encounter (In Production)

Science Fiction Novels

Last of Her Kind http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

Encounter Science Fiction Short Stories & Novella https://amzn.to/3dq6q5l

Inspirational Non-Fiction

My Road Goes Ever On—Spiritual Being, Human Journey https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/robin-bird-on-branch-in-the-garden-818126/

Remember

The wonder of a child’s stare,

 As once we climbed a tree on dare.

The humming, buzzing bee,

Ourselves did marvel at flurry-wings see.

Sharp green apples snatched,

High branches, contentment wrapped.

Unleashed from class,

Homeward dash.

Friends to play,

Blazing trails to stray.

Holiday fun-arranged,

Presents-exchanged.

Growing, planning, hoping, for my sake,

Dreaming awake.

Passion driven,

Conscience striven.

A world of

Could be…

Should be…

 Remember,

Youth’s promise,

When old-age,

Experience,

Pain and loss,

Strew life behind,

Remember,

And climb.

Books by A. K. Frailey

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter https://amzn.to/3iGqGlQ

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In Production)

OldEarth Melchior Encounter (In Production)

Science Fiction Novels

Last of Her Kind http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

Encounter Science Fiction Short Stories & Novella https://amzn.to/3dq6q5l

Inspirational Non-Fiction

My Road Goes Ever On—Spiritual Being, Human Journey

https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings

http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/tree-gnarled-log-old-tribe-4854106/

So Loved The World

Christmas—the birth of God as human being. What a concept!

For my kids’ generation, I have to translate it in terms of an alien coming to Earth, revealing Himself as the seed of human origin. We are more likely to believe in aliens than angels these days. But, be that as it may, the human experience, despite 5000 years of conversations with God and 2000+ Christmases, our life-on-earth journey remains much the same. We are born, we live, and we die.

As I consider this unlikely year 2020, amid all the changes and challenges of our fast-paced technological developments, social and political upheavals, a contracting world amid an expanding universe, pandemics, increasing information, and diminishing trust, I have chosen to focus on what really matters to me.

Family, home, community, my critters, and the little piece of Earth under my care, given by God, offer my life purpose and meaning. Joy even. The happiness of service, becoming a part of more than my petty self, my particular needs, my thin view.

Each day, I attempt to manage my daily-do, taking care of those within my family and community sphere. But the larger world matters, too. In that respect, I have been blessed to interact with three generous stewards of God’s life and love. I am sure there are many others as well.

Unbound https://www.unbound.org/  

Food for the Poor  https://www.foodforthepoor.org/

The Lighthouse Pregnancy Center https://www.lighthousepregnancy.org/

The mystery of Christmas, for me, is not so much that God became human and offers us Eternal life with Him in Heaven—He being God, that perfection is reasonable, even expected—but that despite our faults and failings, our petty selfishness, we humans can and do respond with generous spirits, in imitation of the God who made us.

To join with fellow human beings who so love the world that we offer our lives, in big and small matters, in monetary offerings, time and talent, heartfelt conversations, prayer, solace, nobility of spirit, courage, anonymous kind acts, speaks to a humanity that can rise and grow beyond our worst tendencies, our weakest links, our nefarious faults.

This Christmas season, I choose not to focus on our many problems or the murky swirl of an uncertain future, but rather, I lift my gaze to God in gratitude for His presence among us and for my fellow human beings who live in generous, noble love. Nowhere do you shine so bright as in these dark days. May your light continue to shine in the coming months and years, and may the Good God who created you for Eternal life, offer you the strength and hope to persevere, come what may.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” – John 3:16

Books by A. K. Frailey

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter https://amzn.to/3iGqGlQ

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In Production)

OldEarth Melchior Encounter (In Production)

Science Fiction Novels

Last of Her Kind http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

Encounter Science Fiction Short Stories & Novella https://amzn.to/3dq6q5l

Inspirational Non-Fiction

My Road Goes Ever On—Spiritual Being, Human Journey

https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings

http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Photo: https://pixabay.com/photos/children-forward-skin-color-harmony-2857266/

For Me?

An old woman and her sandwich saved my life. Not that I was starving. I wasn’t. In fact, I hadn’t had an appetite in three days. Moreover, I had no wish to live. She didn’t know that. But, still, she wouldn’t let me die.

Mom reeked of respectability and intelligence. She could entertain a crowd, outpace a runaway train, and beat the devil himself to the punch line. And she could outdrink all the other moms at our daycare center. Her liver didn’t appear to mind. Her brain cells did. But they didn’t let on until much later.

The winter I turned twenty, my world froze hard and deep. Not that December was ever particularly warm in Chicago. But that year, the trip home to Milwaukee on the Greyhound bus left me shivering even after I got inside Mom’s house. The holidays were tough. Lots of memories. Not the jolly kind. But I faced the season with all the joy I could muster. After all, Mom loved Christmas. It was the day after Christmas that got her down.

When I bustled through the door, a blue-green Christmas tree about six inches high with holes for lollipops stood on the phone stand. A rainbow of candies stuck out on each side, aching to send a diabetic into insulin shock. An adorable miniature Santa with his cutesy reindeer attached to his well-appointed sled stood ready for takeoff at the edge of the coffee table. Various Santas, elves, and other decorative pictures adorned the walls. The Christmas tree was bare, waiting for my brother, Jack, and I to do the honors. Which we did with cups of cocoa near at hand and mom’s eyes twinkling.

She sat regally, her evening drink resting in her grasp, comfortably, like the old friend it was. She glowed at our progress and cheered us on with only an occasional, “Missed a spot,” which we would amend with clumps of tinsel and shots of laughter.

God, it was good to be home. I couldn’t think why I had dreaded it.

During the whole Greyhound ride across the snowy landscape, my stomach had churned. Cityscapes and rural townships had passed in picturesque glory. Yet I had only smelled the dank odor of bodies crushed into seats, heard the overworked and underpaid—or so he said—driver grumble, and felt the crack in the seat where the ragged plastic rubbed into my jeans.

Now, as Christmas songs played and snow fell in fat flakes, my brother and I decorated the tree, and my mom watched—happiness pooling in her eyes—I wondered at my moodiness. Why was I always so darn glum? Couldn’t I just relax and enjoy myself?

So I did. I enjoyed the gift exchange. Early Mass. The open house when mom’s friends came and sampled her dark fudge and the variety of snacks we had laid out. I savored every happy smile, every teasing joke, even washing the mountain of dishes in warm sudsy water. There was a reason for the season, and I knew what it was. Love. Joy. Peace on Earth. Goodwill toward men.

After everything was cleaned and put away, exhaustion hit. I lay in my attic room staring at the blackness, as there was no window to peer through. My first year of teaching had left me bewildered and insecure. Was I really cut out to lead kids to educational enlightenment? So far I hadn’t had a whole lot of luck getting anyone to shut up long enough to define the week’s spelling words, much less discover the astonishing exploits of early explorers or memorize the time’s tables. Who knew that eight-year-olds could get so rowdy? Sheesh. Five months in and my teaching fantasy had cracked under the pressure of thirty-one hyperactive little kids. Didn’t take much to make me tumble. But it was a job. That took me away from home.

Why? Mom had been great that year. Life was good. Be happy. I fell asleep convinced that my pep talk had done me good.

Morning came. I knew because the sun rose and nearly blinded me when I went outside to see how much snow had fallen through the night. I stood on the porch amazed at the beauty of fresh snow spread over the neighborhood. Dressed in white caps, the houses along the street matched like siblings at a family reunion. The expanse of woods in the distance put seasonal greeting cards to shame. Even the university across the street arched its towers and pinnacles in newfound pride at thrusting beyond—not just gross ignorance—but the current weather conditions.

“Katherine!”

I froze. Perhaps not literally but certainly figuratively. The tone, the volume, the acid ‘tude told me that Christmas was over even though the season had just begun.

“Come here!”

I didn’t need to respond verbally. She knew I would come. She could hear the front door close no matter how softly I pressed the latch into place. She would hear my footsteps, no matter how carefully I tread. She would know, with some kind of extra-sensory freaky-weirdness when I stood in her doorway.

“Damn you! I said come here. Now!”

Jack had left early. He had only come home for a couple of days. The best days. No fault of his that he had to return to work. Before things got out of hand. Again. He always said that he was older and wiser. He was right.

I faced mom alone. Well, not entirely alone.

At Mass, I often stared at the lights, the windows, the statues, anywhere but at the tabernacle. Or the altar. The priest swept in and out of my peripheral vision so often, I only noticed the color of his vestments, not his face or form. The vestments rippled deep red.

But that Christmas my eyes had strayed. The golden tabernacle glowed, as if in a spotlight. Must be the sun on the snow, I reasoned. Yet it perplexed me. No slanting rays reached that far. As I sat there, battling my inner demons, I finally settled down and faced the gold box. The house of God. The home of faith. The reason for the season. And for an electrifying moment, I knew that Someone lived inside that box.

“Yes, mom?”

Her demands were the same as they had been the year before. Her fury spewed forth at the usual rate. She drank and smoked, nearly setting her bed on fire that night. Numbness came to the rescue. As always. Meals prepared. Refused. I took down the decorations. Perhaps to hurry the season along. The tree got sent to the curb. Tinsel froze on the branches.

Sunday afternoon, I took the Greyhound bus back to Chicago.

As I peered out the window, avoiding every possible human encounter, I decided that I just couldn’t care anymore. Like every kid who had been lied to, I had struggled for so long to believe that perhaps I had simply misunderstood. That a lie wasn’t really a lie. I hadn’t been tricked. And heaven and hell weren’t the same place.

My appetite had died the moment mom called my name in that tone. Too chicken to kill myself outright, after all, it was a sin to do that, right? I figured I just didn’t have to fight to stay alive anymore. I could let death have what despair already prepared, an empty soul.

It was my resolution. Die. As simply and as easily as possible. Before the New Year rolled around, so I wouldn’t have to worry about breaking any promises.

In Chicago, I lived in a house with an old woman named Patricia. I paid a meager sum from my meager salary and put medicinal drops in her eyes every night. A fair exchange. She didn’t ask much of me. We lived across the street from the church, so she attended social gatherings to her heart’s content. She also kept a stack of sultry romances on a chair in her living room. Considering her advanced years, I found her selection rather astonishing. Apparently, she didn’t have any cardiovascular issues.

It was noon when I climbed the steps to her home that she had lived in with her husband of forty years; she had the pictures to prove it. I naturally had to pass through the living room to get to the stairway in order to sneak up to my attic apartment. Painted a sky blue with one window facing north and one south. Not that I could see much more than various roofs and a few stray birds, but it was adequate. And adequate was all I had asked for.

I slipped inside, shut the door ever so softly, quite certain that she’d be napping in her chair and nearly jumped out of my skin when she sprang out from the kitchen like one of those New Year’s Eve’s poppers that idiots blow in other people’s faces. Like that’s funny or something?

No matter.

She grinned. A Cheshire cat would’ve been proud.

“Katherine? You’re home!”

I hate it when people state the obvious and then wait. As if they really want confirmation of reality. “Uh. Yeah.”

“Oh, good! I just made a sandwich! And I’ve got a nice glass of cocoa ready! Here! Come in and get warmed up!”

Dang. What was up with all the exclamation marks? Her whole body shivered with the delight of a pen smacking the paper with a dot at the end of an exclaim.

“Uh. No. Thanks. I really appreciate it. But I’m not hungry.” No, I didn’t tell her the truth. There is no good way to tell an eighty-something old woman who has survived the demise of her beloved husband, the ravages of breast cancer, the Great Depression, and a World War that I’d given up on life and wanted to starve myself to death as an easy way out.

She shook her head.

What? She couldn’t just shake her head and smile at me like that. It wasn’t fair. I hated my life. My mom’s manic-depressive, schizoid, personality disorder ruined everything. I couldn’t hope. I couldn’t live and be happy. Life was a damned lie and that was all there was to it.

“I made grilled tuna with chips!”

In a moment of insane distraction, I actually tried to figure out whether she meant she had grilled the chips with the tuna or if she just screwed with syntax like a possessed scrabble demon.

Bloody hell but that woman was determined. But so was I. My misery must end. I would not eat another bite of food till…well… Gee. Killing yourself was frowned upon, and I might not get a seat at the Heavenly table. So what? I clamped my lips shut.

Then I made a huge mistake. I stood still and let her look at me. Really look. And she saw. Tears formed. All cheer fled. Compassion arrived. And ran me over.

She took my arm and started chatting. A blue jay at the bird feeder filling in all her feathered friends on recent gossip could not have done any better. I hardly noticed when she led me into the warm kitchen and pressed my shoulder hard enough to force my knees to buckle so that I actually sat at the Formica kitchen table. The grilled tuna sat on a plate with little flowers on the border. The chips spilled around the edge. A cup of cocoa sat within easy reach.

“For me?”

It was her question. Not mine. I should have been the one to ask. I should have wondered how she knew I was coming in early. Or why she was fixing me lunch when she never had done so before.

But no. She asked if I would eat to please her. To satisfy some longing she had to watch a miserable, disappointed, despairing woman eat a grilled tuna sandwich at her plastic table.

“Okay.”

So I ate the stupid 2000-something calorie meal and watched as she bustled about the kitchen in do-nothing activity that mystified me. I ate every blessed crumb and drank the dregs of the cocoa only slightly surprised that there was a tiny Jesus face on the bottom of the cup.

When I slipped into bed that night, I looked out the window at the sky. Blackness filled the upper echelons of the cityscape, but a few stars twinkled, determined, I guess, not to let the night speak for them.

Christmas was what I had expected, disappointing, yet enthralling none-the-less. Confusion and grief had blanketed my soul. But the light from a golden box spoke of a presence beyond my sight. And an old woman fed me.

I will die someday. But not in despair.

Books by A. K. Frailey

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter https://amzn.to/3iGqGlQ

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In Production)

OldEarth Melchior Encounter (In Production)

Science Fiction Novels

Last of Her Kind http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

Encounter Science Fiction Short Stories & Novella https://amzn.to/3dq6q5l

Inspirational Non-Fiction

My Road Goes Ever On—Spiritual Being, Human Journey

https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings

http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

 Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/girl-moonlight-night-photography-5279250/

Between the Raindrops

Saundra realized that running between the raindrops, like so many things in life, wasn’t meant to be taken literally. So why was she scurrying madly to her neighbor’s house with any expectation that she would be dry when she got there?

Bradley stared hard as she leaped over the threshold into the open living room-kitchen of their ranch-style house.

“An umbrella was out of the question, huh?”

Saundra didn’t deem it necessary to reply. She knew why she’d come, and it outweighed mere comfort. She couldn’t look Bradley in the eye.

A woman’s voice screeched from the top of the stairs. “Hey! Kiddos, get ready for bed now, or Sandy won’t read you a story.”

The collective sighing, whimpering, and bickering over who got to pick out the first story plucked Saundra’s raw nerves. Who did she think she was? Superwoman coming to the rescue?

She peeled off her soggy shoes and figured that one evening in damp socks wouldn’t kill her. The kids might. But that was merely theoretical.

Anne tottered down the stairs on skyscraper heels, wearing a tight-fitting, burgundy dress that clearly hadn’t been outside the closet in years. Once landed, she tinkered with her earrings and shot a glance at her husband. “Get up there and make them behave.”

An eye roll clarified Bradley’s lack of enthusiasm for the assignment as he mounted the steps.

The initial plea-bargaining Anne used when asking for one night out with her husband without the kids had merely sent a flicker of anxiety through Saundra’s evening plans. No big deal. The kids were a little rambunctious Anne had said but easier than her nephews. Of course, Godzilla was easier than the aforementioned nephews.

A little girl’s scream, a man’s barking order, serious commotion, two slamming doors, pounding footsteps, and Bradley’s flushed face glowering at his wife made Saundra reconsider her assessment. Maybe Godzilla would be easier. After all, there was only one of him.

Anne snatched a lavender purse off a scratched end table and charged for the door. “They’ll settle down. Just let them cool off and read a story with milk and cookies before bed.”

Bradley jerked his car keys around like he’d prefer to catapult them rather than put them to their rightful purpose.

The thought, Get drunk fast, shot through Saundra’s mind. She nodded at Anne’s retreating back, dumbfounded.

It wasn’t until the Ford Explorer squealed into the night that she realized that the kids didn’t even know her. And she didn’t know them.

A little girl’s voice called from the tops of the steps—Sandy?

~~~

The milk and cookies were easy to locate.

Five-year-old Jimmy had a future in mountain climbing the way he scaled the kitchen counter, scrambled to the cabinet over the refrigerator, plucked the hidden cookies from the depths, (next to the chardonnay), and leaped to the floor with his prize.

Jan, at the cultivated age of seven, demurely retrieved three short glasses, lugged the gallon of milk to the table, and sportingly poured everyone a full glass.

Remarkably, a story compromise was reached on relatively benign terms. Each child picked out a short story, and Saundra got to pick a long one. After teeth had been brushed, the kids joined their sitter on the couch and curled up one on each side.

Their body warmth, light patter of rain, and the yellow lamplight settled Saundra’s nerves into a state of peaceful repose. Books made for an evening of simple pleasure. Every Friday afternoon, she read a short story out loud to her high school class. They always groaned the first time. They never groaned the second.

She cracked open the first book and climbed inside. Along with the kids.

By the time the clock chimed midnight, Saundra wondered if she should call the police. After The Velveteen Rabbit, the kids had gone to bed quietly. She shuddered through the late news, and the rain had quit, hours ago. She stretched out on the couch fully aware that she’d fall asleep within seconds.

Before her eyes closed, a door was thrust open and keys slammed on the counter, jolting her nerves wide awake. Loud voices. Slurred speech. Hard soled shoes pounding up the steps.

Saundra’s first instinct was to quiet the two down before they woke the kids. But the realization that this was their house shushed her mouth.

“Sandy? Where’d you get to, girl?”

Sandy rose and stepped into the kitchen.

Anne’s smeared eyeliner, drooping lower lip, and glassy stare froze Saundra in place.

“There you are. Thought maybe you’d abandoned me.”

“I’ve never do that.”

Water ran. Bradley’s heavy tread crossed the room above.

Saundra frowned as she glanced up. “The kids are asleep.”

“Sure. You did great.” She dropped her purse on the counter. “Mind if I pay you in the morning? I doubt my writing’s too clear right now.”

Slipping on her damp shoes Saundra sucked in a deep breath. She wanted the quiet peaceful time with the kids cuddled on each side of her, listening with bated breath, their eyes glued to the illustrated page. Sharing their love of a good story, life itself.

A lump rose in her throat, and words got stuck on the way out. “You two have a good time?”

Anne shrugged. “We drank and talked about the garbage in our lives.” Kicking off her shoes, she lost balance and had to grip the counter. “Piss poor world we live in. Kids will hate us when they grow up. Might hate us now, for all I know.”

Tears threatened. Saundra turned the door handle. “They don’t hate anyone. Yet.”

A star-filled sky accompanied Saundra home. The smell of late summer rain, wet earth, a faint rose scent lifted her spirits. She could hear Jan’s voice pleading, see Jimmy’s dark eyes imploring. “Will you come again and read to us?”

She would. She’d even run between the raindrops if she had to.

Books by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction Novels

Last of Her Kind http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction Novel

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

My Road Goes Ever On—Spiritual Being, Human Journey https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

Encounter Sci-Fi Short Stories https://amzn.to/3dq6q5l

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/digiart-composing-book-cover-1979293/

Good Questions for Home Schooling Families

I have talked with a few anxious parents who are considering the merits of homeschooling their kids vs. trying to adjust to the “new educational normal,” which might change at any given moment.

Knowing full well that each family situation is unique, and no one is better qualified to make the educational call than the parents, I’d like to share a few thoughts and questions that have helped me in my homeschooling successes with eight kids over the last twenty years.

There are advantages and disadvantages to every system. The very aspects that make homeschooling great can also create nightmare scenarios, depending on how situations are handled. Consider these questions to get in front of problems so that no matter what system you choose, you can make the most of your kids’ educational opportunities.

1) What grade level for each class is most appropriate for your child? Sometimes a child is having trouble and needs an extra year to handle abstract concepts, or he or she may roar ahead and be ready to move on to the next grade after a few months. Perhaps a child is a grade level behind in math but is two grade levels ahead in reading. As a homeschooling parent, you can fine-tune the grade levels for each class to match the child’s exact needs for each subject.

2) What textbooks and materials will you use? Will you pick from an online established site or browse books available through Amazon or other resources? Do the books meet the state guidelines and teach a comprehensive course or are they supplemental material? Will there be extra materials for art, music, sports, and game experiences?

3) What will the curriculum look like? Will the kids follow a subject for the whole scholastic year or take classes for semesters? Or a bit of both—Algebra I for the whole year but Constitutional History for a single semester? Play around with your options and build a curriculum with motivational factors in mind. Kids may hate spelling tests, but they will likely endure those better if they get to include a semester doing something they love—like learning sign language, photography, or how to play the saxophone.

4) In consideration of the curriculum and yearend goals, what does the calendar look like? Each state has attendance requirements, but a homeschool can exceed that. We often had more days built into our year, so we could spend some of those days on less structured, fun activities. Also, illness comes into the picture at some point, and it helps to have make-up time built in.

5) On any given day, how many hours will the parent teach hands-on or lecturing, and how many hours will the student work on his or her own? In general, I found that my kids were more attentive to my instruction in the morning, and I left practice and follow up work until the afternoon. I also tended to leave the more fun/creative classes till later in the day. The kids were ready for outdoor sports activities and nature hikes after they had sat with books and hands-on materials in the morning.

6) What about field trips and out of the house adventures? Even if many places are closed down, there are still creative ways to extend learning outside the home. Pumpkin farms, dairy farms, a visit to a local business, (with the owner’s permission, of course) nature hikes, sketching tours, photo tours, library events, trips to public service sites, visits to elderly neighbors (with safety precautions in place), and other creative outside-the-house experiences help invigorate a child’s educational experience.

7) What will the grading system be based on? Pass/fail? A numeral system based on tests and quizzes? Corrected assignments and parental insight as to how well the material is understood through observation and conversations? Or a combination of all of these? It is a good idea to take notes or have a place to record this information. Also, it helps to pick out an end of the year or semester report card ahead of time so a parent knows what to look for. Do handwriting and attitude count?

8) How will disruptions—like unexpected guests, phone calls, unplanned emergencies—be dealt with? It can be hard to explain to relatives and friends, but homeschooling is a serious endeavor and needs to be treated with the respect of any other classroom setting. No, it’s not okay to extend recess to two hours so mom can deal with a side issue. At least, not more than once. The side issue needs to be put in its proper place as soon as possible.

9) Dreaded question—How will misbehavior be handled? It’s a good idea to set expectations right off the bat. Even though kids don’t usually plan to be “bad,” cause trouble, or give their teachers/parents a rough day, it happens. Bad moods, a poor score, a fight with a friend or sibling, even an unwanted vegetable on the dinner menu can create trouble. Get in front of it and discuss how disobedience and poor attitudes will be handled. Use lots of imaginary examples. Prudy Poortude cried through every spelling lesson and stomped her foot each time a new word appeared on her list… Get your kids to figure out how to deal with Prudy, and you’ll have a few ideas on how best to deal with them.

10) Last but certainly not least, how will excellent behavior be rewarded? Achievement is every bit as noteworthy as troublesome behavior. Reward the good stuff! If a child has excelled in an area, make sure that he or she knows it. That may simply involve a hug or a formal handshake. But tell your child in word and deed that they have done well. Sometimes—for going beyond and above excellence in classwork or extracurricular activities—chocolate chip ice cream is involved. Perhaps a new game? A special dinner? You know what your child loves best. Be sure to celebrate and remember to thank them.

That way, when they graduate, they may remember to thank you.

Have a happy school year, Everyone!

Books by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction Novels

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction Novel

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

My Road Goes Ever On—Spiritual Being, Human Journey  https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

Encounter Sci-Fi Short Stories https://amzn.to/3dq6q5l

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/kids-girl-pencil-drawing-notebook-1093758/

Innovation—The Art of Modern Homeschooling

First—What’s the big picture?

Second—The Details…Oh, those pesky details!

Third—Upheaval is a way of life—Accept it and keep going.

Books by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction Novels

Last of Her Kind http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter https://amzn.to/3iGqGlQ

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Oldearth Melchior Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

My Road Goes Ever On—Spiritual Being, Human Journey https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/boys-kids-children-happy-sitting-286245/

You Never Know

As Lucy stared at the wafts of steam spiraling up from her cup into the frosty air, a bittersweet pang fluttered in her chest. So like the incense they use at Mass. Frankincense clouds rising toward the heavenly beings painted on the ceiling. She always felt like she was being left behind somehow.

She tapped her numb fingers on the mug to ensure circulation. It wasn’t right, sitting here in the truck, out of the blasting wind, while the men dug the hole. Granted, they had a huge machine to do the digging. She only had to record the fact that the deed was done in the right place and mark it on the map. Perhaps she didn’t need to be here at all.

But no. It was her job. Had been for years and everyone trusted her to do it right. No one was ever buried in the wrong plot under her watch. A couple of families squabbled about who would go where, but that was quickly settled with cheerful tact and abundant patience.

But this time? There certainly were no squabbles. Even the deceased didn’t specify exactly where he wanted to be buried. Only “in his home town.” He could have wanted to be buried in someone’s basement for all she knew. Why didn’t anyone ask him to clarify his wishes before it came to this? And put some money down while they were at it?

Lucy placed the cold mug in the cup holder and clapped her gloved hands together, sending prickling stings along her fingers. She could turn on the engine and warm up…but that’d be like telling the guys she was tired of waiting. Or too cold to stand it. They’d turn her way, looking apologetic. But then, they’d still have to get back to work and open the grave before it got any darker. Bothering them wouldn’t make this go any faster.

With a sigh, her exhaled breath clouded the scene. She glanced at the folder in her lap. Might as well open it and appear to be doing her job. She flipped the thick, stapled papers to the last page. Section P. There were really only seven sections, A through F, and by all rights, this one ought to be labeled G, but someone around 1902 must’ve thought that future generations needed a little help keeping things straight. So he or she labeled this section P. For pauper.

She didn’t know much about Mr. Keelson. Oh, there were Keelsons living throughout the county. But this particular twig must’ve snapped off long ago since no one knew him or his history. When the funeral home called and said that a Mr. Thomas J. Keelson had left a scrawled note in the hospital, requesting to be buried in his hometown, she had recorded all the relevant info sure that, in time, some knowledge of him or his family would surface.

But no.

Mr. Thomas John Keelson was born in the town as the records stated, but not one person claimed him or his family. The Keelsons that lived over on Six Sisters Road had no idea who he belonged to. And Velma, the patriarch of the country, said she’d never clapped eyes on the man. It was a mystery. A sad one, at that.

A knock on the glass startled her. She looked up. Glen waved a couple stiff fingers with his dirty-gloved hand. His tight smile tried to appear cheerful, but his frosty white cheeks and squinting eyes bore testimony to a north wind that just wouldn’t quit. He shouted through the glass as if the cold had made her hard of hearing. “We’re ready.”

She nodded and flipped the book back into her folder. She knew the lot number by heart. Seven-two-three. Block P. Three from the top. Three from the right. Nestled between Mrs. Eula Patel and open ground. There was an oak nearby. With an iron bench situated just under the heavy boughs. In the springtime, it looked picturesque. Today it sat between forgotten and forlorn. Her heart throbbed more painfully than the rheumatism in her joints. She climbed out of the truck and braced herself against the wind. She didn’t even notice that she let her muttered thoughts loose as she tugged on her cream-colored crocheted mittens and then stuffed them into her oversized coat pockets.

“Why don’t people think about the future? Surely…”

“What’s that?” Glen, huffing through his scarf, still shouted. He tucked his hands under his armpits. His coat, as well as his frame, was so thin, she imagined that if the wind grew any stronger, it would surely knock him back all the way into block A.

“Oh, nothing. Just wondering why no provisions were made. It’s not hard to pick out a plot, and they’re not expen—”

“Family is probably all dead. Maybe he had one but gave it away like that Joseph guy in the bible did for Jesus.”

Lucy shook her head and felt the wind bite her ears. She yanked her hood tighter around her head. Glen’s gentle heart always looked for the best in folks.

Once she reached the graveside, she nodded to Paul. Short and stout to Glen’s tall, lanky build, the two made a study of contrasts. Paul hardly ever said a word. Just did his work as carefully as ever a man could. A state inspector might review every grave dug in the last thirty years under Paul’s watch but would never find a single fault.

The movement of the hearse backing up caught her attention. It stopped with the flash of the brake lights, and then the engine died. The door swung open and Berta swung out. The woman practically sprang from the front to the back like a released rubber band.

Being a funeral director, Berta had a certain gift for dramatic style. Despite the fact that there was no real assembly to speak of, the power of her movements retained their usual vigor. The back doors swung open, and the two men stepped forward in lockstep. The king’s guard would’ve been impressed with the stately manner in which they carried the cheap wooden coffin from the hearse to the plot.

It took a bit of managing to get everything lined up just so, and the box down smoothly, but despite the wind howling in her ears, Lucy felt warm relief flood her whole body as Mr. Thomas J. Keelson was finally laid in his eternal resting place.

Once the process was completed to Berta’s satisfaction, she grinned, waved, and then retreated from whence she had come like a motion picture star going off stage.

Glen and Paul began to fill in the hole. There was nothing left but to wait in the truck. Lucy climbed in, shoving her notebook and papers aside. It was too cold. She eyed the key in the ignition.

They won’t mind.

The truck roared to life, and Lucy turned the heater on full blast. She leaned back in the seat and closed her eyes to the sound of the tractor shoveling dirt into the hole. She tried not to imagine it in her mind.

Her phone chimed.

After yanking off one mitten, Lucy tugged her phone from her coat pocket and smacked it against her ear. “Yes?”

“Mrs. Lucy Harden?”

“Speaking.” Lucy felt her heart constrict. She didn’t recognize the voice, but who on earth would be calling her this late on a Friday evening?

“Sorry to bother you, but I just discovered that my dad’s body was taken to your cemetery to be buried.”

“Your…dad?” A chunk of ice caught in her throat.

“Yeah. He’d been ill for some time and couldn’t remember things so well. I’ve been living on the west coast. There’s no one else. When he was sick, I made sure that the funeral home would do right by him…but I never actually specified where he was to be buried.”

Lucy shook her head. Tears sprang into her eyes. “He left a note saying he wanted to be buried in his hometown. So we did.” She grabbed a breath and choked it down. “Just now.” Tears sprang into her eyes. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know you existed, or I would’ve let you know. The funeral home never told me—”

“Oh, they didn’t know. See, my dad and I didn’t get along. He was a terrible dad, as a matter of fact, and a worse husband, if you know what I mean.”

Lucy’s gaze drifted to the two men adding the final touches to the grave, piling on the last of the dirt and rounding the edges. Their backs were bent and the oak’s black branches seemed to claw the air above them like a menacing monster.

She made a proper grieving sound. As she must.

“But despite everything…I knew my dad was terrified of being cremated. He thought it was a prelude to hell. Used to say that if we had him cremated, he’d come back and haunt us. I figure he won’t have any say in the matter…but still. I can’t explain. I made sure he wasn’t cremated. But I just couldn’t bury him.”

Lucy couldn’t think of a thing to say. Her nose and ears burned like hellfire.

A knock on the window nearly wrenched her out of her skin.

“Done!”

Glen looked so happy through his dog-tired eyes, and Paul waved as he hustled to his own dirt-splattered truck.

Lucy nodded. To no one in particular.

Glen climbed in the driver’s side, slapped his hands on the wheel, and grunted. “Thank God!” He saw her frown and froze.

Lucy spoke into the phone. “Sorry. But, what did you say your name was?”

“Oh, yeah. Thomas, like my dad. Though everyone just calls me Tom. Named my son is Thomas too. Tommy. My wife insisted; she loves the name…”

A tear rolled down Lucy’s cheek, and she couldn’t for the world explain to Glen why she was crying. I did my job, after all.

 “Well, Mr… I mean Tom. You can rest assured that your dad is buried properly. If you ever want to visit him, he’s in section P.”

“Thank you, mam. I just wanted to know. I doubt I’ll ever come.”

Lucy could hear Tom shift the phone against his ear.

“Maybe my boy will, someday. Never know.”

Another tear followed the first.

“But I’m just glad it’s over. Maybe now I can forget it all. Thanks…Bye.”

Lucy stared at the silent phone as if it might dissolve in her hand.

Glen sniffed. “He had a son? Sorry he wasn’t here to say a few words over his dad, I suppose. Poor guy. But he can come in the springtime—Memorial Day. We get a real crowd then. Maybe he’ll even meet up with some long lost family members.” Glen put the truck into gear and headed onto the main road.

Lucy dropped her hands, still holding the dead phone, onto her lap. She stared at the houses with lit windows shining onto Main Street. Each a personality unto itself. Miniature little worlds.

Glen cleared his throat and jutted his jaw as if to defend a point of honor. “Well, you never know.”

Lucy nodded. “You’re right. You never know.”

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

HeartBeats—Spiritual Being, Human Journey  https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

Small Town Life

When I drive through small-town America, my heart responds to the sheer variety of life options. Mobile homes, well-kept trailers, two-story white farmhouses, ranch homes, horses grazing on a side lot of a tiny home, manicured lawns, garden beds adorned with huge metal roosters that beat all.

Even the cemetery speaks of loved ones long or recently departed. Tombstones of black granite, white stone, heart-shaped, tree styled, announce names, dates, and the final resting place of those who once occupied the various homes throughout town.

Business is limited here as there isn’t the infrastructure to feed a large number of main street stores. I figured that most everyone worked in a farming-related industry, but I’ve been surprised to discover a variety of employment options. People drive from various places or work online.

But why live here? I wondered.

Turns out there is a good reason. Family.

I have come to know several families in the area and discovered that though younger members may have found employment in another town or city, they frequently return home to visit.

Personally, I find that rather awesome. In a disconnected world, to discover three, even four generations still closely connected, rivals anything I could learn about my family on Ancestory.com. And then, there’s that cemetery. The one here in my town goes all the way back to the 1830s. Who needs an Internet search when great-great-grandpa is laid to rest next to great-great-grandma on Burg Road?

I’ve spent time with several of the elderly folks who have lived in town for most of their lives. They had children, and their children had children. And so it went. On birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays, families gather for food, conversation, and support.

This feels a bit like peeking in on an alien world. A little enviously. Except now, the alien world has become my home.

Granted this little town isn’t as vibrant as it once was, and big-city problems plague people here too. But I’ve come to admire the tenacity of small-town life. Deep roots. Hard-working. Quiet and enduring.

Some people sneer at crumbling barns, closed storefronts, and population counts that would look more impressive if they included horses, house pets, and God’s glorious nature, but I’ve learned to look through the broken parts and be amazed by the spirit of those who came before.

To be honest, as I drive down Main Street to a meeting at the tiny municipal building, also known to host the morning’s Coffee & Gab gatherings, I feel honored to be a part of this world. Maybe someday, I’ll leave my mark behind—for those who come after.

 

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

HeartBeats—Spiritual Being, Human Journey https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Storiehttps://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

You Have No Idea

If electrical tape could talk, Shasta was sure the strip she held her in her hand would scream, “I’m not made for this!”

Shasta batted away the hyper-personified thought and executed a swift fix. Only God and her electrician would ever know…and she wasn’t talking to either of them at the moment.

A second razz from her doorbell told her that someone was getting a tad impatient. She eyed her work critically. Black electrical tape on a clear refrigerator shelf, cracked nearly in half, but oh well… She shoved the shelf back into its slot. It works. That had to be enough.

The bell sounded in two short bursts this time. “I’m coming!”

After running her fingers through her hair, Shasta smoothed down her rumpled sweater and figured that no one would notice that her shoes were broken down at the heel. Besides, the only people who came for a visit were salespeople who blatantly ignored the no soliciting sign posted on the edge of town or a couple of elderly religious ladies from a denomination Shasta kept getting mixed up with the local sport’s team: Vandals or Evangelical—something…

She swung open the door prepared to be polite but firm. The answer was no.

“Hi, Shasta.”

There he stood. Tall. Grey-headed. Heavyset. But still handsome. The train whistle in the distance could have carried the entire train with it, rumbled over her front lawn, heading directly for her, and she wouldn’t have moved.

“Jasper?”

She blinked to make sure she wasn’t hallucinating. Though she’d lived clean and sober all her life—one heard stories of strange events. Carbon Monoxide poisoning? She sniffed the air. Nope.

“Can I come in for a moment?”

Shasta backed up, opening the door wider, ignoring the cold wind rushing into the room. Good Lord, he looks like mom.

It must’ve been twenty years…no…she tried to calculate. She’d been living in Chicago the last time they’d talked. He’d been drunk and said some things he shouldn’t have. She’d hung up on him…

“A long time, eh?”

Shasta dropped her gaze and considered dissolving into the floor. Her heart pounded, and spots swirled before her eyes. Jasper had gone from being a disturbed kid to a dysfunctional adult. When her mom got the police report that his body had been found in the park, she had grieved, but then relief had—

“I figure it was about twenty-six years ago we last spoke.”

Thank God that good manners ruled society with habitual fluency. Shasta gestured to the couch. “Please, sit.” She reached out. “I can take your coat.”

He shrugged the heavy winter coat off his body and smiled as he handed it over. He wore an impeccable blue shirt with dark pants and gorgeous leather shoes.

Heaven, those shoes alone probably cost more than my monthly rent.

“Uh, you want some coffee…tea?” She only had cheap tea, but her coffee was pretty decent. Something to make waking up in the morning worthwhile.

“Only if you’re having something.”

Shoot. Shasta never had coffee in the afternoon since it would keep her up half the night, so she’d have to offer her bland tea. She eyed her brother again. He looked like he was used to having the best. A drug dealer? She shook her head and started for the kitchen.

“I’ll just put the kettle on. My tea’s not that great, but I can make it nice and hot—”

Jasper settled his large frame onto the couch. “Whatever you have is fine. Don’t go out of your way.”

Hmmm…this did not sound like the Jasper she knew. Her brother had always been wild and demanding. Flighty even. Nothing like this composed fifty-something gentleman making himself comfortable on her shabby sofa.

She slapped her cheek as she turned the fire under the kettle. She had patched a worn spot on the couch cushion with black thread, though the fabric was olive green because, well, heck, who has olive green thread?

She pulled two cups out of the cabinet, snatched a couple tea bags, dropped them into her finest mismatching mugs, and placed a jam-smeared creamer pot dead center. Dang, I meant to wipe that—

Jasper ambled into the kitchen, smiling.

Smiling? Certainly never like that. Shasta leaned on the counter. “Sorry, I’m a little befuddled. You’ve kind of taken me by surprise.”

Jasper leaned on the sink and crossed his arms, his expression grave, but not sad. Just serious. A deep thinker? Jasper?

“I thought about calling, but I was afraid you’d hang up on me.”

Shasta had to give him credit. He didn’t say “again” though the word hung heavy in the air.

Shasta shrugged. “I might have. I don’t know. Usually I try to give people a second chance—”

“Oh, but you did. And a third…a forth…God knows how many. You and mom never seemed to give up. Always took me back in.”

“But then you disappeared. We thought you were dead for a while there.”

Jasper nodded. “That was kind of the point. I wanted to appear dead. Got mixed up with the wrong type of people…” He exhaled a long breath, his gaze on a trail she could not follow.

Shasta’s body trembled. This was what was didn’t want to live with…why she’d been so relieved—

“So, I died. Sort of. Actually, I did time in prison, gave testimony, met an amazing teacher, and started going to Mass again. Then I—” He met his sister’s gaze. “I don’t know how to explain it.”

The kettle began to hum. “Like one of those reborn things people rave about?”

Jasper tilted his head. “That wouldn’t do it justice. I got into a fight while serving my time and didn’t win…if you know what I mean. I should’ve died. But for some reason, beyond everyone’s hopes and expectations, I lived.”

“Why didn’t anyone tell me…or mom?”

“I wasn’t going to drag you guys back into my mess. I never gave anyone your names. I wanted to either die or start over.”

The kettle shrieked.

Shasta jumped.

Jasper laughed. “You always were sensitive.”

Shasta poured the steaming water into the cups, a blush working up her cheeks.

Jasper stepped closer and leaned in. “I made you cry more than once, and I’m really sorry about that, Shasta.”

Hot tears blurred Shasta’s eyes. Hot water burned her fingers.

Jasper took the kettle and placed it back on the stovetop. He took both her hands and peered at her. “I was a terrible kid and a nasty man. I choose to tackle hell and take everyone who loved me through it too.”

Her tears overflowed, and Shasta dropped her gaze. She wanted to wipe her face, but he still clutched her hands.

“I’ve made a new life, an honest one. Got married to a terrific lady and have three kids.” He let go of her hands and pulled a wallet from his back pocket. He flipped the picture section open and four attached photos dangled in the air.

A pretty woman with stylishly cut hair and perky blue eyes stared at Shasta. A handsome teen boy dressed in a basketball uniform smiled, while a preteen girl and an adorable baby made up the rest of the family.

Something hideous stabbed Shasta from the inside. Sarcasm dripped like poison from a keen-edged knife. “Great, Jasper! I’m so happy for you. When mom died, I, like the dutiful daughter, managed everything. I even paid for her funeral and cleaned out the old house. The next year, my prince of a husband left me, saying that he’d rather travel the world than pay bills. So, I’ve been slaving away at a dead-end job for sixteen years, and now—” She squeezed her eyes shut, smacked her hands over her face, and bent double under a nameless agony. Uproarious sobs exploded like lava from an uncapped volcano.

Jasper bundled his sister into his arms and held her close, rocking her ever so gently.

She could hear his heart beating through his fine shirt. A spicy cologne scent wafted into her nose. Her shivering body responded to the sudden warmth.

His voice turned husky. Choking on the words. As if he were crying too. “That’s why I’ve come back.”

Shasta pulled away and stared at her brother. “Why? Because you feel guilty? Because you heard that my life isn’t so great? That you’ve succeeded, and I’m a miserable failure?”

Jasper took his sister’s hand and tugged her back to the couch. They sat side by side. He plopped his family photos on the coffee table, never noticing that she had used a brown marker to color in a water stain.

“Last Christmas, my two oldest kids—” he pointed to the appropriate photos as if she didn’t have a brain in her head. “—got into an argument. Mary said some hard things to Dominic, and it got ugly fast. Everything was patched up after a bit…but the whole thing stirred some unpleasant memories.”

Shasta swallowed and wiped the residue of tears off her cheeks.

“I told them that family is forever. But then, Mary pointed at me and asked where my family was. Dom waited, like he wanted to know too.”

Shasta sighed. “Ouch, eh?”

Jasper threw back his head and stared at the ceiling. “I was convicted all over again. How could I tell my kids to forgive…to love each other through—whatever—when I had cut myself off from my own family?”

Shasta raked her fingers through her hair and straightened her shoulders. “You want to make amends?” She shook her head. “I never hated you or anything. It just hurt…that mom died thinking the worst.”

“I will live with that for the rest of my life. But you—” He swallowed and tears rolled down his face. “I don’t deserve to be forgiven. I don’t deserve another chance or the happy life I have. But…Shasta—I want to be able to tell my kids the truth. That family can forgive and love does—”

Shasta stood and waved to the kitchen. “Enough. I’ve cried enough for today. If you don’t mind stale tea, I think I have a package of cookies in the fridge.”

Jasper gave his face a quick rub down and followed Shasta into the kitchen. “What can I do to help?”

“Well, the cookies are in the crisper…” She put the teacups into the microwave and hit the minute button.

Jasper laid the package of Fig Newtons on the counter and smiled. “By the way, I like the black electrical tape on the shelf. Very chic.”

Shasta grinned. “Oh, you have no idea, brother. You haven’t seen anything yet.”

 

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

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It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz